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  • The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas: An Essay to Accompany Photographs
  • Cedarbough Saeji (bio)


Korean mask dance dramas are captivating and entrancing. Comedy, tragedy, and social commentary meld with energetic dance, distinctive masks, and lively music. These dramas are often colloquially and incorrectly referred to as talchum (“mask dance”) in Korean—in fact, talchum is one of the major variants of mask dance drama from Hwanghae Province in present-day North Korea. Performers of other variants have long objected to the broad application of the term (akin to calling all in-line skates “Rollerblades” or all MP3 players “iPods”). Only in the late 1990s did academia catch on, when two highly respected midcareer mask dance drama scholars, Bak Jintae (Daegu University) and Jeon Kyungwook (Korea University), began to use the terminology talnoli (“mask play”) and gamyeon-geuk (“mask drama”) in their publications.

I needed to watch only one performance, in 1997, to fall in love with the mask dance dramas, but at first the many forms of the genre melded together in my mind. It took repeated exposure and study over more than a dozen years for me to see the profound similarities and differences among all of [End Page 439] Korea’s mask dance dramas. Part of my learning process was exploring the existing scholarship on mask dance dramas. Many of these prior publications were written by scholars of literature who explored the dramas through text. Few scholars have direct experience of mask dance dramas, and those who do generally gained their knowledge from a few years of participation in a college club. Consequently, it is not surprising that much mask dance drama scholarship paints the different mask dance dramas with too broad a brush. After all, most scholars’ exposure was limited to learning a single mask dance drama, taught by upperclassmen, with occasional intensive classes led by professionals. Few college club performers and participants in intensive camps can articulate the differences between the mask dance dramas except in the most general of terms. Therefore, in this short essay, I will attempt to supply the reader with a framework for understanding the complexity of Korea’s many mask dance dramas.

Discussion of mask dance dramas in Korea generally refers to the mask dance dramas that are listed under the 1962 Cultural Property Protection Law (CPPL) of the Korean government as “Important Intangible Cultural Properties.” Of the other mask dance dramas performed today some are variants of the nationally recognized dramas, listed in a provincial equivalent of the CPPL. Most, however, are madanggeuk, new creations that emphasize drama and dialogue much like Western dramas, although they also incorporate traditional movement, vocabulary, and themes. There are fourteen nationally certified mask dance dramas, all shown in Figure 1. I have listed them according to the order in which they were certified as Important Intangible Cultural Properties. Although the order and year of listing is analytically troublesome, the earlier listed arts generally still had living performers and had already come to the attention of scholars at the time the law was passed, while arts listed later were more likely to have been resurrected.

In Figure 1, the names of the mask dance dramas clearly show regional variants. However, it is easier to understand the major variants of mask dance dramas by observing the placement of the dramas on a map. As you can see in the map shown in Figure 2, there are distinct groupings of dramas: three talchum in Hwanghae Province, two sandae noli near Seoul, three ogwangdae and two yayu in two different parts of Gyeongnam Province (ogwangdae and yayu are sometimes considered a single variant). The other mask dance dramas, Bukcheong Saja Noleum, Gangneung Gwanno Gamyeon’geuk, [End Page 440] Deotboigi (from Namsadang), and Hahoi Byeolshin’gut Talnoli are quite distinct from one another and from the other dramas, for reasons discussed in this essay.

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Figure 1.

Mask Dance Dramas of Korea. Compiled by author.


The history of the mask dance dramas has been admirably researched. Yi Duhyon’s work (I rely on the 1981 edition of his original 1964 text) set the standard for the topic...


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pp. 439-468
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2020
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